Challenges remain for Georgia’s new merged colleges

Students cheered Bonita Jacobs as she strutted into a pep rally to celebrate the new University of North Georgia.

Jacobs is president of the university, one of the schools created this past week when the state Board of Regents merged eight existing institutions into four new ones.

Students have been talking about the merger ever since it received preliminary approval last January.

During a rally Thursday celebrating the merger, students at the Gainesville campus wore blue T-shirts with the school’s new name and mascot, the Nighthawks. They made signs like “UNG, baby!”

But while the merger may be official, consolidation is a process, not an event. Now, the schools must carry out their plans, which will require a lot of work and vigilance, said national higher education expert Richard Novak.

“It can take two to three years to create a sense of a single, new university,” he said. “Implementation is sometimes more difficult than writing the original plan.”

The University of North Georgia will teach about 15,000 students by combining Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University (NGCSU). Its four locations include a traditional residential campus in Dahlonega and other sites in Gainesville, Cumming and Oconee County.

The school offers everything from two-year associate degrees to graduate programs. Students’ abilities will vary widely, so the school will offer remedial classes for those who are not prepared for college-level work as well as advanced courses that are, in part, offered because it includes one of only six senior military colleges in the U.S.

“We have made a lot of decisions, but we will spend the next couple of months and even years figuring it all out and adjusting where needed,” Jacobs said. “We will need everyone to be patient.”

Regents Chairman William “Dink” NeSmith called the mergers a “milestone” in the history of the University System of Georgia. The action gives the system 31 colleges, down from 35.

While state lawmakers have urged mergers for years, it took two key events to make it finally happen — the recession and a new chancellor.

Chancellor Hank Huckaby first suggested mergers in September 2011, just a few months after he took over the system. It was part of a large-scale plan to force the system to confront today’s economic realities — it has lost more than $1 billion in state funding since the recession started.

Huckaby’s other goal was to expand academic offerings across the state. The mergers ultimately will save $6 million, mainly through reduced administrative costs. Taxpayers won’t see a savings, however, because the system plans to redirect the money to academic programs and other services for students.

“Some people didn’t sign on with this and there were some struggles, but we stuck to it,” Huckaby said. “This was an enormous challenge and we had to figure a lot of it out on our own.”

While others states have tried to merge colleges, few have attempted something this extensive, said Novak, executive director of the Ingram Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

That left Georgia’s system with little guidance on how to carry out the consolidations, said Steve Wrigley, executive vice chancellor.

Gainesville State and NGCSU assembled 65 working groups on everything from a mascot for the merged school to curriculum and admissions requirements.

Officials decided early on to retain the access mission that was a critical part of Gainesville State. Access colleges emphasize two-year programs, charge less tuition and do not have residential programs on site.

Students attending the new University of North Georgia will apply to a specific degree program, and admissions criteria and tuition rates will depend on what they choose, Jacobs said. Associate degree programs will be based on the criteria used by Gainesville State while bachelor and graduate degree programs will maintain the standards used by NGCSU.

Students in a two-year degree program will pay the current state college tuition rate, which is $1,423 a semester. Those in four-year programs will pay the state university rate, which is $2,426 a semester.

“We will make sure we get students into the right program,” Jacobs said. “We will respond to the needs of each campus.”

Not all degrees will be offered on all campuses, but students will see more options.

Gainesville offered nine baccalaureate degrees but that will grow to 12 through the merger, Provost Patricia Donat said. The Oconee campus doesn’t need as many four-year programs because those students historically transfer to four-year programs such as the former NGCSU or the University of Georgia, she said.

Students won’t have to drive from campus to campus to get help. Every site will have a financial aid office, counseling and admissions services, and a dean of students, said Tom Walter, vice president for student affairs.

“It’s so exciting because now we have more majors and more campuses to go to and more people to meet,” freshman Erin Watson said at Thursday’s pep rally.

The university will maintain current faculty levels and has worked to make sure curriculum and learning standards are consistent across the campuses. This was particularly crucial for programs where there was overlap between the two former institutions and teams of faculty had to agree on new degree requirements, Donat said.

The new school is working on a strategic plan, Jacobs said. One short-term challenge will be budgets, as the University System held off merging finances until the new fiscal year begins July 1.

The system decided to move ahead with the mergers now to avoid any delays in federal financial aid to students. It will take a few months to process the paperwork required to shift accounts and guarantee a smooth transition for students. More than 65 percent of Gainesville State students and 90 percent of those at NGCSU receive financial aid from the federal government and other sources, according to school data.

“When all is done, we will have more opportunities for the northeast Georgia region,” Jacobs said. “We are going to be one. One mascot. One faculty. One college.”

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